SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — How automotive dealers respond to online shopping inquiries significantly impacts vehicle purchase decisions, according to a forthcoming study that will be released in April by R. L. Polk & Co. More than 570 new-car purchasers were surveyed about their online shopping experience. The study concluded that simply initiating a response is not enough to build customer loyalty. Rather, dealers must respond as consumers request, factoring in content, speed and method of response, in order to increase the chance of selling a vehicle.

When considering the content of dealer follow-up to Internet leads, Polk’s study found that consumers are most interested in vehicle availability and price, with model purchase price range tending to be the most important pricing information. Getting the lowest price for a vehicle is not the single most important determinant for most consumers. Rather, buyers are willing to pay a competitive price for a vehicle.

“Dealers can improve make loyalty significantly by improving satisfaction with response time and pricing information,” said Lonnie Miller, director of Industry Analysis, R. L. Polk & Co. “If a dealer is not already including price information in their response, they should begin doing so immediately. That, coupled with speed, can yield an average increase in make loyalty of 3.4 percentage points.”

Additionally, Polk’s analysis reveals that 47 percent of consumers wishing to receive an e-mail response view 10-24 hours as an acceptable turnaround time. Sixty-eight percent of consumers preferring to be contacted by phone expected to be contacted within one hour, according to the survey, giving dealerships some insight into the increasing expectations of consumers using online tools for vehicle shopping.

“Paying attention to the method of response is critical to the success of a dealer’s online leads. Customers want to do business with dealers who listen to them,” said Miller. “Polk’s study shows that 70 percent of respondents who purchased from a responding dealer were contacted by their preferred communication method.”

In addition to dedicating resources to ensure consumers’ content and method needs within responses are met, dealers also need to consider the significance of the first time buyer audience as they evaluate Internet inquiries. Overall, 68 percent of consumers who received a response purchased from the responding dealer. Of that sample, first-time buyers make up more than one-third. Because brand loyalty begins with this group, Polk recommends dealerships make immediate changes in how they respond to Internet leads to ensure they are capitalizing on this very important audience.

“Polk’s study found that first-time buyers are often overlooked, but can be customers for life if dealers listen to their needs. Of the respondents who did not receive an answer to the leads they submitted, 46 percent were first time buyers,” said Miller. “Though not all first time buyers are the same, dealers can reap near immediate reward by responding to them in a timely manner and providing the information they request.”